Betty White and Grieving Well
Happy Birthday Betty...
Betty White and Grieving Well
I read 20 quotes by Betty White this week, when she would have turned 100 years old. I needed to reinforce my visual fantasy of her grabbing 2021 by the tail, saying “You’ve caused enough trouble and if I have to go before my party, I’m taking you out with me! Let’s give these folks a break and let 2022 start fresh.”
Betty’s quotes were mostly like that: direct, curt, “a bit fresh” as my mother might have chastised. The one on grief made me cringe:
“Don’t become a professional mourner. It doesn’t help you or others.” Ouch. Permission to grieve is the community mantra now. Your time, your way. Don’t let others push you, the grief experts say.
But here is the thing. Betty is right. Professional mourners are lost in their sadness, and that is not helpful. But most people do not choose to get stuck in their grief. They do not want to be sad forever. What is the difference between honoring your own path through grief, and keeping that path healthy? What is grieving well?
There are three things important to remember.
First, grief is not merely sadness. Grief is the complex of thoughts, feelings and realities that loss brings into our lives. It’s not just emotions and fears, but also wonderings and wanderings, new necessities, and evolving self-definitions.
Grief is so much bigger than sadness. The real work of grief is so much more than feeling its pain. It is facing the unexpected giant hole we must build our life around. Who am I without a parent or spouse? How am I different? How do I want loss to change me?
To grieve well means making space for all of that. Making time and energy to explore that myriad of questions, and to find your own answers. I grieve my sister when I do something she’d have pushed me to do 20 years after her death. I grieve my daughter-in law when I tell stories that make her real and funny and silly and alive to her daughters.
We enter grief through the door of sadness, but the work behind that door involves a rainbow of feelings, unique to each and every loss, and sadness is not your only, nor your most useful tool.
Second, sadness is only one feeling, but it is the greediest feeling. Whenever it appears, it wants all the space, wants to eat up all the oxygen in the room. Sadness does not share well. It announces itself with a force that blows everything else away, that shames us if we ask it to quiet down.
No other life event demands such loyalty to one emotion. When a child is born, we are filled with joy. We look at him in awe, feeling that happiness each time we see his face. But very soon we make room for all the other feelings of parenthood; worry, and responsibility, exhaustion and wonder. “Joy is not exactly what I’m feeling when his diaper needs to be changed again,” the mother of a 2 ½ year old smiled. “And no one tells you that only joy is allowed,” I laughed in response.
Confusing grief with sadness gives one emotion too much power. We waste energy struggling to avoid it, or feel compelled to give into it whenever it appears. Neither is healthy grieving. Sadness needs to be expressed, and listened to, and given room to breathe. It will always need that.
But that begs the real question of grieving well. The question that often takes mourners by surprise when I ask it after the tears have quieted:
What else do you feel?
It is in the other feelings of grief that our future is born. In the anger, the fear, the determination, and righteousness. In the things we will not stand for, and the things we do not dare to believe. All of these are grief’s products as well. They are just as much the work of grieving well as sadness is, and they hold more hope.
Third, grieving well is creating meaning.
Sometimes we need those professional mourners whom Betty disparages. People who will wail with us and free our pain and help us express the fullness of sadness.
But that is not the real work of grieving well. It is only the beginning. And yes, it will always be a stop on the wall of remembering.
But the wall is built with meaning. The work of grief is the construction of a life around the loss, because of the loss, and in spite of the loss.
The bricks that build that wall take time to find, and design and secure. They are unique to each person and to each loss. They may fulfill a loved ones’ dream, or create a life you never imagined.
But one thing is clear. They must go beyond sadness.
For the real work of grieving honors the existence of those we loved. It makes their presence and their gifts to us more central than their loss.
It pushes sadness to the side, to take its seat, while we celebrate the love that was bigger than the loss, the love that we still hold, transformed, in the lives that go forward. The love that changed everything.
Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D.
January 17, 2022
Author of: I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child